Elon Musk speaks at TED.
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Stop Envying the Super Productive. Extreme Ambition Is a Form of Mental Illness (Just Ask Elon Musk)

Jessica Stillman

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Sites like Inc.com (where I am a daily columnist) celebrate exceptional achievement and aim to help readers pursue greatness, but is super success all it’s cracked up to be? If you knew the real costs (and the roots) of being a household name, would you actually want that life?

That’s the fascinating question at the heart of a handful of recent articles that question whether what we usually cheer as great success isn’t often just a manifestation of a troubled personality and a whole lot of pain.

Extreme output comes from extreme personalities.

Take the case of best-selling author Danielle Steel. Having churned out a mind-bending 179 books, she’s won herself a legion of fans and a hefty personal net worth. How did she do it? Simple, she works 20 hours a day.

No, really, that’s straight from the horse’s mouth in an interview with Glamour: “I don’t get to bed until I’m so tired I could sleep on the floor. If I have four hours, it’s a really good night for me.”

Commenting on this interview, author and Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman points out that “before the dawn of the gig economy, which made it mandatory to celebrate unrelenting toil as proof that you’re a ‘doer’, we called this workaholism — a compulsive absorption in work, perhaps due to anxiety, or low self-esteem, or the desire to avoid engaging with some more difficult aspect of life.”

Burkeman isn’t saying anything radical here, but in today’s world, where extreme success is so celebrated, it’s easy to forget that the drive to reach the top often doesn’t just come from love of the work. Instead, the motor powering the extreme effort underlying extreme success can be a need to escape anxiety, fear, or inner turmoil. The super productive are often running away from pain rather than toward the joy of creation.

He isn’t the only one making the point. Over at The School of Life, a brainy self-help program started by philosopher Alain de Botton, a recent article breaks down the painful psychological roots of super achievement. A great many of the highly driven, the piece points out, had a troubled childhood. (Science…

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Jessica Stillman

Top Inc.com columnist/ Editor/ Ghostwriter. Book lover. Travel fiend. Nap enthusiast. https://jessicastillman.com/